Workers cut Net down to size

 

WHILE the Internet has been grabbing most of the headlines over the past 18 months, a quiet revolution has been taking place inside companies. Private intranets internal Internets shielded from the rest of the world by "firewall" security software are blossoming.

"This other side of the Internet is about to explode," said the Gartner Group in a report late last year. The research group expects more than 50 per cent of large companies to have not just intranets, but business critical "enterprise wide webs" by 1998.

Intranets take advantage of the open protocols, standards and the familiar Web browser software of the public Internet to provide employees, close customers and suppliers with easy access to corporate information and processes. They enable people to find information easily, work together and share the results of their work. At the same time, employees can venture out on to the Net, but unauthorised users cannot get in.

Already, Netscape, the Internet software supplier, reports that most of its Web server software sales to companies are for internal rather than external use. On the hardware front, Compaq recently announced that all its computer servers will be sold with Web software already installed.

Meanwhile, California based Zona Research, predicts that sales of software to run intranet servers will jump to more than $4 billion (£2.58 billion) next year, up from just $476 million last year.

The intranet phenomenon, like its public network counterpart, has sent companies such as Computer Associates, IBM, Microsoft, Oracle, Netscape and Sun Microsystems scrambling to rush out intranet software.

For example, after initially underestimating the impact of the Internet on corporate computer use, Microsoft, is racing to catch up. Its domination of the market for packaged PC software inside companies with products such as Microsoft Back Office makes it particularly vulnerable to any shifts in sentiment.

Recognising this, Microsoft is in the midst of an aggressive catch up exercise designed to ensure that its corporate products, such as Microsoft Office and Back Office, are not just Internetaware, but remain at the core of enterprise wide networking. It has caused ripples in the Web server software market by giving away its Internet information Server program and its browser on the Net.

"Intranets are the most important new computing platform since business computers were introduced into the business environment," says Microsoft, in a discussion paper. "Intranets are about corporate workforce connectivity. They connect people to people and people to information."

Last week Hewlett Packard and Netscape announced an intranet alliance. The deal calls for them to share technology and, product development for intranet with joint marketing, support, sales and training. They plan to jointly develop intranet management systems for both Unix and Windows NT, using Netscape's servers and OpenView, HP's system management software.

Fundamentally, private intranets are being embraced by companies because they bring immediate gains in terms of helping people to find information, work together and distribute their results effectively.

Advocates of the intranet claim it reduces the need for paper and provides cut price global access to corporate information "dissolving all departmental and geographic boundaries". Because Web browsers run on any type of computer, the same information ranging from internal directories to budget forecasts, training manuals, product specifications or even order forms can be viewed by any employee.

Another claimed advantage for intranets is the relatively low cost of ownership. Most of the infrastructure is already in place, and because the same basic programming can be used on all sorts of computers, fewer programmers are required to write and maintain software.

Even more importantly, because they present information in the same way to every computer, they are able to consolidate the patchwork of incompatible computer systems, software, and databases which most companies have to live with, into a single system that enables employees to find information wherever it resides.

They also allow employees to work in collaboration on projects. For example, engineers at Ford used the car manufacturer's intranet, linking design centres in the US, Europe and Asia, to help design the 1996 Taurus.

Similarly, consultants working for EDS, the computer services group, use EDS Web to collaborate on customer projects. "We are trying to use the intranet as one of the ways to improve productivity," says Todd Carlson, EDS's chief information officer.

From engineers to office workers, employees are creating their own Web home pages and sharing details of their projects and even their diaries with the rest of the company. For example, Federal Express, which is saving an estimated $2 million a year by encouraging customers to track the progress of their packages through a public Web site, is providing its 30,000 worldwide office workers with Web browsers so they can view the 50 plus Web sites running inside the company, most created by and on behalf of employees.

In a recent report, Forrester Research described America's Fortune 1,000 companies as "breathless over the intranet". Forrester found that 16 per cent of a group of 50 large US companies it studied already had an intranet in place and 50 per cent were either planning or considering building one.

"The intranet is unstoppable," concluded Forrester, "it has an unprecedented speed and forward momentum".

Concerns about the robustness of firewall security could eventually limit the penetration of intranets, although most companies in the US appear to be sufficiently confident in security to make all but their most sensitive information available internally.

In the long term, the big winners are likely to be those software companies, including security specialists, who manage to ride the intranet wave. Companies such as Oracle, Sybase and Informix which supply the bulk of the big and powerful database systems used by most companies should also do well.

Sybase is already testing a program called Web SQL, which links Web servers with its own and other vendors databases and Oracle has developed a product called Oracle Mobile Agents which is designed to provide mobile employees with secure access to corporate intranets from any location using fixed wire, dial up or wireless connections.

The intranet could also help breathe life into Oracle's vision for the Network Computer low cost devices designed to provide access to information and programs stored on the network. The first network devices, built to a specification drawn up by Acorn Computer on behalf of Oracle, are expected to appear in the next few months.